My understanding of French culture, that country's debate on immigration, and Muslim theology are limited at best. However, I was a writer and editor for the Onion for 19 years, and I think I have a grasp on satire. So it is with some confidence that I will say that I don't understand the satirical point behind running a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad naked and on all fours with a star over his asshole, as Charlie Hebdo did in 2012.
I mean, I understand that depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are theoretically banned by the Qur'an (they're not explicitly banned by that text, but we don't need to get into all that), and that it's supposed to be transgressive and shocking, but what is a non-Muslim Westerner saying when he or she draws a cartoon like that? To me, it comes from a place of fear and misunderstanding, and it's a big "fuck-you" to Muslims. It's an uneducated Westerner's knee-jerk reaction to a Muslim extremist's knee-jerk reaction, ignorance combating ignorance, and it turns into a giant circle knee-jerk. When one gets the ball rolling, it's easy to hide behind a cry of "satire!" in order to justify these offensive images.
Obviously, no one should die over such images, even if reasonable people might doubt that they need to be put out into the world. And in fact, if someone wants to publish images like that, it's important—vitally important—that they do so.
The engine of social progress is fueled by discourse, but discourse can get mired in repetition and dogma. Unless there's a flashpoint, people are more than happy to let the status quo go unchallenged—headlines blur together, tragedies become routine. Satire, good or bad, can hone in on an injustice—real or perceived—and broaden it, amplify it, turn it into something so loud that it can't be ignored.
Recent case in point: Allegations of Bill Cosby's serial rapistry appeared in People, arguably one of the nation's most middle-of-the-road mainstream magazines, in 2006; the year before that, one of his accusers was interviewed on The Today Show, the bland morning news program on the very network that aired Cosby's hit sitcom. Nobody rose up and took notice. But last year, comedian Hannibal Buress mentioned the accusation when calling Cosby out on his hypocrisy of demanding a certain behavioral standard from black men when he himself has been accused of raping several women—and now the controversy has reached the point where major networks are wary of working with the formerly revered comic.
More personally, when the Onion published its reaction to 9/11, we were inundated with emails thanking us for giving people something to laugh about, a new way to react to the horror that was fresh in their minds. It made some people's lives a little better, which was, without a doubt, cool.
So what did Charlie Hebdo's cartoons of a naked Muhammad accomplish? Years ago, I interviewed cartoonist Joe Sacco, the creator of Palestine, for the Onion's sister publication the A. V. Club. The topic turned to Robert Crumb and the graphic, shocking, awe-inspiring drawings he produced. "Crumb kicked down a lot of doors for us," Sacco told me. "We're still afraid to go through some of them." I think that's true for all means of expression. It's important to know that everything can be said in order to say the things you want to say.
Though they seemed mostly designed just to provoke, the offensive cartoons were also published alongside what I would say are more thoughtful works, including an image of a fundamentalist Muslim terrorist preparing to behead Muhammad for his beliefs. It's perfect satire, and a salient point made all too poignant by the events that occurred this week. Moving forward, I wish Charlie Hebdo would lean more toward that sort of thing—but more than that, I hope they don't give a shit and continue to push every envelope so that somewhere, someone is inspired to confront the ideas they believe to be self-evident and maybe create something for themselves.
Joe Garden is currently a freelance writer and performer; in the past, he was a writer and features editor for the Onion, but has now fled society to live unencumbered by responsibility. Follow him on Twitter.